Life or Death?

“They’re hacking my brain!” she exclaimed. “There’s a camera in the ceiling fan recording me. They follow me everywhere!”

You probably think this is about how Alzheimer’s has hijacked my mother’s brain.

But this is a story about my step-daughter.

My mother’s had her share of delusions. The man in the closet wearing her high heels. Being held prisoner in the cellar with illegal immigrants. She’s never owned heels. Her memory care home has one level.

Both women have a brain disease. Last week, one chose to end her life. The disease became too real: sanity was elusive; treatment refused.

Again, I find myself packing up a life once lived.

Grateful Dead posters. Zeppelin CDs. Crystal Scotch glasses. Prada handbags. Digging through the layers tells the story of my step-daughter’s life.

We all have a chapter we don’t read aloud. In this case, there were volumes.

Don’t let shame or fear of being labeled with a mental illness stop you from seeking help. Find out more here or talk to someone 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Losing It

She’s losing her ability to write. She’s losing her ability to read. She’s losing words and lipsticks and jackets and purses.

And I’m losing it.

“They’re stealing clothes from my room,” my mother laments. “And they throw out my magazine when I’m not looking.”

I wanted to believe her, but I know this is just another way Alzheimer’s robs my mother of rational thinking. “Let me take a look,” I say, and give her a hug. Over the years, I’ve become a stand-in for Saint Anthony in finding mom’s lost objects. The religious magazine she’s talking about is stashed at the back of her nightstand. Again.

At a workshop I attended last week, dementia expert Teepa Snow told us this: “If the same thing is missing three times in a row, it’s usually because it’s causing fear.”

Suddenly, I realized mom was hiding that magazine because the words had become terrifying.

I made copies of the articles she likes, and now, while she holds her magazine, I read it aloud. She may not comprehend the words, but reading still brings her comfort. And together, it’s not so scary.



Love/Hate Relationship

Yesterday, we went for a walk, my mother and I. We had just finished lunch in the main dining room of the senior home, one of her favorite things to do.

“This is a horrible place,” my mother says, the chocolate cake from moments ago long forgotten. “You can’t imagine what happens here.”

I’ve heard this almost as many times as I’ve heard what a wonderful place it is. And I’ve learned over the years to nod, smile and redirect when she experiences the extreme emotions of Alzheimer’s.

“Look at the beautiful marigold bush!” I point to the purple sage on the xeriscaped lawn. These days, we call most flowers “marigolds,” regardless of hue. The familiar memory erases her distress as swiftly as she shifts between reality and dementia.

Today, when I visit, the residents are listing famous heroes on the white board. We take a walk, my mother and I. She picks a few pink oleanders.

“What beautiful marigolds!” she says. “I love this place!”

When we return, we begin a new white board game with her friends, listing all the things they love about living here.

“Chocolate cake!” my mother yells out. “We haven’t had that in years!”